Reissue date: July 29, 2003 (released 1995)
In 2014, I read a remarkable book by Nicola Griffith, entitled Hild. It is the fictionalized account of the early years of Hilda of Whitby, later to become Saint Hilda, and is set in medieval Britain (Hild was born in 614). What made the book so remarkable was not only the titular character, but the depiction of 7th century Britain itself, told without sensationalism yet so starkly gorgeous and vividly rendered. “This,” I thought to myself, “is the epitome of transcendent writing.”
Recently, I got the chance to read another novel by Nicola Griffith, wondering if a book set in the near future could be as good as the one set in the past. I’m pleased to report that the answer is yes. Slow River is, again, transcendent writing.
Slow River is the story of Frances Lorien van de Ost – Lore -, scion of a family grown wealthy from patenting the “hundreds of genetically engineered micro-organisms that now are indispensible in the world’s attempt to clean up its own mess.” We meet her when she is 18, and has just escaped from two men who have kidnapped her. She is naked, injured, and hiding in a filthy alley when she is found by a hustler/hacker named Spanner, who takes her home and – in the hacker’s own convoluted way – takes care of her.
Although the entire world knows who Lore is – the images of her captivity have been splashed all over the “newstanks” in an attempt to evoke sympathy for her plight – Lore is desperate to be anonymous. Right before her abduction she had learned some devastating news about her family and the father she had adored, reinforced by their refusal to pay her ransom. Feeling totally abandoned and alone, she seeks to reinvent herself in a society where one’s personal identity is conveniently integrated into everyday life – and easily manipulated by those know how to take advantage of the world’s pervasive technology.
While Slow River succeeds as a futuristic tale (for having been written in 1993, it is eerily prescient in envisioning a society that feels not only possible, but halfway realized), where it shines is in Lore’s internal struggle to justify her actions as she comes to realize that personal integrity is only a given for those with privilege – and even then comes with camouflaged compromises. How she reinvents herself, and how she rationalizes decisions made during her reconfiguration, is deftly done; no navel gazing here. In lesser hands, Lore’s journey could bog down in “woe is me” soliloquies and/or fists being shaken at gods, but Nicola Griffith instead allows for an intrinsic flow of causality, fear, insight, deferment and decision that, while focused, seems defensible even at its most depraved – until we realize that we are rationalizing Lore’s actions right alongside her.
At times fluid then practical, technical then slippery, full of stark ugliness and moments of unguarded beauty, Ms. Griffith’s narrative is in equal parts both jarring and familiar. By setting her novel in a future that is neither utopian nor dystopian, it gains instant credibility. Consider this: there is a workable response to the effects of climate change; however, the corporation most capable of facilitating that response is also devoted to ensuring an exclusivity of its patented processes and products. When corners are cut in order to save money (or divert profit), accidents happen; the corporation at the heart of the turmoil will assist in recovery efforts but will not be subject to any liability over the deviation from their protocols. And this is the very environment in which Lore had been cultivated to oversee, back when she thought her father was kind and her mother was inviolable. Before her sister committed suicide and her brother was broken, before she was kidnapped and abandoned, before she lost everything and chose not to take it back.
It helps that the author allows for our awareness of Lore to be pulled from present, past and deeper past – Lore in the “present”, long after the kidnapping and at the cusp of moving forward in her life; the near past where she lived furtively, with Spanner, as she tried to make sense of a world with no safety net and very little compassion; and of the deeper past when she was a child growing up in what she took to be a stable, intellectual, powerful family.
Sidebar: Interestingly enough, the author uses three tenses to further separate these three places in time: first person past tense for the narrative present, third person past tense for the immediate narrative past, and third person present tense for Lore’s childhood. Additionally, Ms. Griffith wrote the three sections chronologically but then broke them up (literally – printing out the text and cutting the pages up, scattering them around the floor) and rearranged them in bits according to a recurring pattern, one which “a reader’s subconscious would recognise…” Ms. Griffith has written an incredibly interesting blog post about “Writing Slow River” (March 1, 2016); I encourage checking out the post just after finishing the book (which is what I did) so as to marvel at how much more can go into a work of art than immediately meets the eye, and yet once pointed out, can be recognized as giving the work an even deeper beauty.
Slow River is indeed an transcendent work of art. Transcendent, and yet so accessible, so recognizable, so relatable – which only makes it more exceptional. It truly deserves to be read.
~ Sharon Browning